In the lead editorial in the new issue of Scientific American, the magazine’s editorial board responds to those who advocate an inordinate emphasis on STEM subjects at the expense of the liberal arts and humanities.

scientificamericanScientific American has always been an ardent supporter of teaching STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But studying the interaction of genes or engaging in a graduate-level project to develop software for self-driving cars should not edge out majoring in the classics or art history.

The argument of the editorial is not only are humanities subjects valuable in themselves, but that the skills they teach are essential even in the tech world.

Scientific American is not isolated in its opinion. In fact, it is the opinion of tech leaders themselves. It points out Apple’s Steve Jobs declared that it is “technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” And they point out that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg was “an avid student of Greek and Latin when he was only in high school, in addition to setting about learning programming languages.”

In other words, there is no great benefit in narrowly training tech people in linear thinking skills, and depriving them of the lateral thinking essential to truly successful technical accomplishment is a mistake. In fact, anyone who has dealt with people in the modern technical professions knows that technical skills are always only one aspect of what is needed. Technical expertise is necessarily at the service of some other, non-technical goal. And it is those who know something about both who are the most successful.

[T]he student who graduates after four years of pursuing physics plus poetry may, in fact, be just the kind of job candidate sought out by employers. In 2013 the Association of American Colleges & Universities issued the results of a survey of 318 employers with 25 or more employees showing that nearly all of them thought that the ability to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems”—the precise objectives of any liberal arts education—was more important than a job candidate’s specific major.

Those same skills, moreover, are precisely the ones required for marrying artistic design with the engineering refinements needed to differentiate high-end cars, clothes or cell phones from legions of marketplace competitors—the type of expertise, in fact, that is least likely to be threatened by computers, robots and other job usurpers. “Consider America’s vast entertainment industry, built around stories, songs, design and creativity,” wrote commentator Fareed Zakaria, author of the book In Defense of a Liberal Education, in a Washington Post column. “All of this requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum.”

Read the rest here.

 

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